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Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion


Elder Scrolls are games that reveal themselves slowly, made all the trickier this time by the immense hype surrounding the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, with over-use of the phrase ‘next-gen’ raising expectations to an almost absurd degree.

Now that the game is finally released it can be seen for what it truly is, complete with all the achievements, missed opportunities and minor annoyances that are as much a part of the series’ heritage as swords and orcs.

Rats and goblins

The first noticeable difference between Oblivion and the previous Elder Scrolls game, Morrowind, is an immediate sense of fun. Morrowind demanded several hours of dedication before you got to the meat: Oblivion throws interesting and exciting things at you from the very start.

The clever tutorial-cum-character creation opening of the game has been described ad nauseum on a thousand different websites, so I won’t do the same here. Suffice to say that within half an hour you find yourself in frenzied combat, picking locks, sneaking through the shadows, eating herbs of dubious origin, setting traps …it’s a long list of activities not unlike your typical Friday night out.

Remarkably, at no point does this myriad of options become confusing, with the slickly designed interface making everything a doddle. You can check quests, consult your map, poison your weapon, brew potions and change equipment all with a handful of mouse clicks (or console buttons) and everything is perfectly intuitive. You don’t feel like you’re navigating an unresponsive file browser, like with Morrowind’s unwieldy inventory – instead it feels more like rummaging through your backpack. This turns potentially laborious RPG elements into something fluid that rarely breaks the immersion.

Unfortunately the PC version of Oblivion suffers a little from console-itis, with fonts and images displayed in a huge size that is only really required for viewing on a television from a distance – great if you’re on your sofa, not so good at your desk. This has already been fixed by the amazing Oblivion modding community, of course, but it’s daft that Bethedsa failed to properly tailor the interfaces for each platform.

In the thick of it

Gameplay elements are largely superb, with combat being a definite highlight. Traditionally a cerebral but disembodied element of RPGs, Oblivion opts for a far more direct approach. There are still a vast number of strategic options to try but they are combined with a brutal, thrilling fighting model that neatly balances character stats and player skill. There are no random dice rolls here – if you want to dodge an axe blow, it’s down to your quick movement. If you want to block a sword and then retaliate quickly, it’s all about your timing.

This excitement is carried over into the quests, which are imaginative and well-paced, particularly the main quest which moves along with a frantic urgency that was sorely missing in Morrowind. In fact, the pacing is not dissimilar to a tightly-focused linear game, while still benefiting from the Elder Scrolls’ trademark freedom.

Exploring Tamriel

Visuals are mostly superb, with beautifully lit interiors (dungeons being particularly effective) and astounding vistas when out and about. Being able to view almost the entire length and breadth of the map is quite a revelation, only really seen before in action game Far Cry. Oblivion’s visuals are far from perfect, however, with long distance terrain rather muddy and the occasional animation going astray. Horses are a particular disappointment, being little more than speed boosts, with none of the personality, realistic handling and lifelike animation seen in, for example, Shadow of the Colossus.

All the visual beauty comes at a price, with framerates fluctuating hugely even on high-end PCs. If you’re below the recommended spec, I wouldn’t even consider buying Oblivion until you can afford a computer upgrade – go for the Xbox360 version instead, if that’s an option. Curiously, the modding and tweaking communities have already found ways to improve both the performance and maximum visual quality of the PC version, which begs the question as to why Bethesda fully optimise the game themselves. Microsoft politics with regard to the Xbox360 release, perhaps?

Actors on a stage

While the general sound and music is uniformly superb, the voice acting is often clumsy and hackneyed. Given the amount of time spent listening to dialogue, either in the background or in direct conversation, it is possibly the game’s main flaw. The trio of name actors in the form of Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean and Terrence Stamp all turn in superb performances but the general population is voiced by a tiny selection of American actors whose delivery ranges from merely adequate to embarrassingly staccato.

Performances are hampered further by the clumsy and clichéd dialogue that frequently suffers from the worst indulgences of fantasy writing. Overly flowery and portentous, what should be moving or serious often ends up being accidentally comedic. This is most evident in the conversations you hear around town, where characters bump into each other and launch into mostly non-scripted (and thus highly artificial) conversations.

Searching for life

In fact, the game’s greatest achievements and biggest flaws all lie in the non-player characters that populate the world. Bethesda have crafted what they term ‘Radiant AI’, a system that determines the 24/7 behaviour of every single character in the world. This neatly avoids the lifeless mannequins of most RPGs, ensuring that characters always have a purpose and a destination. The effect is remarkable, with behaviour such as shopkeepers closing up shop at night, heading to the local pub for some food, then going home to sleep. It adds a level of reality to the game that hasn’t really been attempted previously.

As always with such ambitious AI, it also suffers from the occasional mental breakdown. As well as the aforementioned unconvincing banter, characters can often get ‘stuck’ in the scenery or each other, shopkeepers don’t tend to mind if you start running along the tables knocking their goods everywhere and attitudes towards the player can switch drastically between different lines of conversation. Overall, the AI aids the immersion more than it harms but it’s still unfortunate that Bethesda was unable to iron out the kinks. As it stands, it’s an exciting indication of the future of gaming, rather than a current success.

All the successful elements serve to craft a fun and exciting world that usually feels very ‘alive’. This is tempered somewhat by the largely familiar medieval setting which doesn’t lend itself to the same depth and imagination seen in Morrowind. Visually, socially and politically, Oblivion’s realm of Cyrodiil seems a much simpler place and, as such, slightly less interesting than the contrasting architecture and populations of Vvardenfell.

Pushing the envelope

Oblivion is generally described as an RPG, which is perhaps to do it a slight disservice. It certainly has many RPG elements, such as a wealth of statistics that affect everything from running speed to combat, but it could also be easily described as an adventure game, a first person shooter, a stealth-em-up – you get the idea. As such it joins the hallowed ranks of such genre-busting classics as Deus Ex, on a far grander scale.

Some will clamour that this is a dumbed-down approach to appeal to the masses; specifically for the Xbox console crowd. This would be to miss the point, however. The RPG genre has been stagnant for years, served by decent stories and ever-more complex stats but precious little innovation. The same can be said for many gaming genres, which is why a game that tries to push out in a new direction and break through the dry and unnecessary genre boundaries is so welcome. It may upset the hardcore crowd, but it is crucial for the onward development of gaming in general.

Ultimately, those that ‘understand’ will forgive all the quirks and unpolished surfaces and find themselves utterly immersed. For the casual gamer Oblivion is still far more accessible than its predecessor and standard RPGs. Elder Scrolls games require dedication: the more you put into them, the more you get out. If you’re willing to leave your real life at the door, then Oblivion offers a memorable experience that will last for years.

Gameplay: Freeform and versatile, you’re never short of things to do, places to visit, people to see or creatures to fight.

Graphics: Beautiful and frequently awe-inspiring, albeit with some rough edges.

Sound: Some of the best game music in a long while, combined with excellent combat and ambient sound. Dialogue, however, is reminiscent of a badly translated b-movie.

Lifespan: As close to infinite as a game can be – apparently there’s about 200 hours of quests. 30 hours in and I have barely scratched the surface.

Final score: 8/10

Simon 'Tarn' Jones © 2006

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